Tomorrow has arrived, but not for everyone. A digital divide persists, even in seemingly connected countries like the United States, where some twenty percent of the population, or sixty million people, don’t have Internet access at home. Those on the wrong side of the divide—the poor, the elderly, the geographically dispersed— are already marginalized, and tend to have a more critical need for specialized legal services, whether to resolve a conflict, acquire a land title, seek asylum, or escape an abusive situation. The digital divide compounds this isolation, as connectivity induces the myopic ideal that the entire world is visible from one’s digital window. In truth, the opposite is true: the image is incomplete, and those who could most benefit from technology’s reach are cropped out of view.
This myopia is especially dangerous in the context of legal systems, which already struggle from accessibility problems, from the economic (lawyers are expensive) to the linguistic (legal language is confusing) to the procedural (see linguistic) to the simple problem of someone not knowing where to go for help. As legal service providers around the world undertake new technology projects, they risk further locking out those who don’t have access to the technology platforms that these projects are built on. A commitment to bringing rule of law to all creates a duty to bridge this digital divide and deliver legal services to everyone regardless of their connectivity level, rather than waiting for the most marginalized populations to catch up to a chosen technology platform. Fundamentally, technology is connective, but insularly so. A technology implementation’s success must then be measured by how well it connects a person who needs help to a person who can provide it.
By that standard, SMS—a simple text message—is the most successful technology available. Accessible to anyone with a simple mobile phone, it’s typically the first technology that anyone has access to, with a global penetration that approaches 90%. Although not perfect, SMS’s relative ubiquity can help capture a wide swath of populations deeply in need of better legal services. For those new to a legal process, SMS can provide the first word about where to go to seek help, simplifying a mess of aging websites with deprecated information. For legal service providers, SMS can be used to streamline and simplify intake processes, digitizing a client’s information at the first interaction and directing them to the correct provider right away, easing the burden on strained administrative systems, and allowing more people to be helped in less time; a process that’s worked time and again in a broad range of service industries. For court and probation systems, SMS can demystify court cases by reporting to parties on its progress, communicate key information and milestones, and provide reminders of appearances. Finally, for clients who are in high-risk situations, such as homelessness or abuse, SMS can provide a discreet, accessible technological means to reach out for help.
An SMS isn’t flashy, but it’s available, it’s cheap, and it works. For those who may not have the means—whether economic or social—to establish formalized relationships with service providers or Internet carriers, access to a mobile phone is within their reach. In high-connectivity countries, SMS can bring last-mile access to justice to those last twenty percent who remain unconnected, directing people to legal aid, guiding pro se litigants through court processes, or providing those on probation with a low-friction means of checking in. In low-connectivity countries, SMS can provide the first digital building blocks for interacting with a previously inaccessible legal system, from process tracking to dispute resolution, reducing response times and helping to foster trust in formal legal institutions. As service providers continue to build ever more sophisticated technology systems—or even if a provider is digitizing for the first time—the connective tissue between those systems and individuals must accommodate for populations on the margins of connectivity.
In each case, like any technology deployment, SMS isn’t the last step. In both high- and low-connectivity countries, there are those without phones, or without the literacy to use SMS. Service providers will have to continue to work to reach those populations, through community outreach, phone hotlines, video, radio, and other creative means—and at SIMLab, we can help reach those people, too. But, by providing the missing link in digital outreach and access to justice, SMS can ease the burden on other intake procedures, whether digital or analog, and help to build a truly human-centric API, where services are equally accessible regardless of one’s connectivity or access to technology.
Technology’s promise remains unfulfilled for many. Waiting for users to catch up to the technology is a futile exercise, as technology development outpaces the adoption rates of the most marginalized, and increasingly many people get left behind. Instead, legal services must come to the client, at as many levels of connectivity as possible. Embracing SMS can help a critical proportion of the unconnected get access to the legal services they need, and help build legal systems that are more accessible, transparent, and comprehensible.